Your brand has a story: a narrative of who you are, who you serve, what you do, and where you’re going. It informs your marketing and sales, communications, and culture. It lives in the hearts and minds of your customers and employees.

How you weave the story of your brand requires thoughtful strategy and creativity. How do you balance talking about your mission and capabilities vs what you do for others? And most importantly, who is the star: your customer, or yourself? 

A narrative sets your brand message and personality

A brand narrative typically rolls out messaging in a linear structure, delivered with a distinct tone of voice (and often accompanied with visuals). It comes through in things like your website, ad creative, sales pitch, company video, annual report, editorial calendar, employee programs, press releases, and more.

Customers care because they want to know who they’re doing business with, and what you do for them. Employees care, especially when the job market is hot and they have their pick of where to work. Partners care, as your narrative gets interwoven with theirs (and sometimes they need to repeat it to others).

What comes first: your customer or your Why?

You can say everything you want, but just not all at the same time. The critical part comes in the beginning – you have seconds (at best) to hook a discerning and distracted audience. So how should you start your story?

There are two main schools of thought: put the customer first or start with the Why. Some true believers will tell you to always do one or the other, but over the past few decades, the pendulum has swung back and forth on which way is right.

So which one is it? That depends on a lot of factors – mostly around what you have to say, what your audience wants to hear, and what you’re trying to achieve. 

Starting with the customer can seize attention

Customer first. User centric. Customer obsessed. Most brands fall all over themselves to insist that no, it’s not about us, it’s about you. And often, they’re smart to say so. Relevance is key to earning attention, so it makes sense to lead your narrative with your customer – their goals, problems, as well as where they are in their process. 

There are many reasons to put the customer at the heart of your brand narrative, including:

  •   You have a strong value proposition. The simplest brand story is a problem-solution. Lay out their need or pain point and show how you solve it. You want the customer to see themselves in the narrative, so call out relevant issues with specifics. Bonus points if you have a clearly differentiated way of doing it.
  •   You have a complex offering. If what you do is intricate or technical, then your communication priority is helping people understand and feel comfortable. Unless your audience is an expert themselves, in which case you can skip the education and focus on where your journey overlaps with theirs.
  •   You have people who vouch for you. Sometimes you make the customer the hero of the story by using their actual words. Reviews, testimonials, referrals – anytime you have language from a happy customer (or employee, or partner), take it! By default, they’re a more trusted narrator than you are. 
  •   You want them to find you in search. If you get substantial business through SEO, you need to rank highly for what customers are looking for. Website nav and headlines should focus on the terms customers actually search: their own issues, goals, problems, etc. 

This won’t look the same for everyone. It’s best if your narrative has a central theme that shines through in all your communications, but be prepared to adapt it for different audiences and media at different altitudes. When you make the customer the hero of your narrative, then the story changes with every telling.

Starting with your Why can build trust

Your mission. Your purpose. Ever since Simon Sinek came down from the mountaintop with Start with Why(TM), people have parroted the idea that people don’t buy what you do or how you do it, but why you do it. (Asterisk: sometimes.)

It’s true that many people select brands based on mission and values, especially employees and long-term stakeholders. As a result, elevating Why-focused language can be effective in recruiting, internal comms and programs, social media, and key pages on your website like About and Careers. 

In brand marketing and sales efforts, the narrative typically focuses on the customer by default, with Why language playing a support role (think play-by-play vs. color commentary). But there are plenty of situations where starting with why resonates with people:

  •   Your offering is more relationship-driven. A one-and-done transaction tends to be more about the product: does it solve my need? If your offering involves spending more time together, then it’s ok to start with Why – because the product is you.
  •   Your business is truly mission-driven. Not every company is driven by a higher purpose, but those that are, are more likely to lead their narrative with their mission. (Note: you don’t have to be highly mission-driven. But if you do lead with it, you must be able to back it up.)
  •   You have a great origin story. How did it all begin: a moment of inspiration, a long and winding road, a tale of overcoming adversity? A memorable founding story can win people over if it’s genuine and it demonstrates what makes you you. 
  •   Your offering is undifferentiated. I love working with companies that are truly unique, but it’s far more common that they closely resemble their competition (in perception and reality). If your offering and capabilities are as good as anyone else’s, then your Why could be a good way to differentiate.

Caution: Even if your mission isn’t in the spotlight in your sales and marketing, resist the urge to omit it entirely. Many companies tout their Why with employees and the press, then ignore it entirely with customers, which feels disingenuous. In the end, even by-the-numbers people pick the brand they trust.

A false choice at the narrative crossroads

So what should you start with: you or them? 

I said earlier that crafting a brand story means making critical choices, and that’s true. But sometimes it’s a false choice, because it assumes your customer and your purpose are separate – ideally these are two different lenses on the same thing.

When your value prop and your mission are aligned: you help people with problem X because you’re driven to eliminate X in the world. In that situation, you can lead with the problem as a villain and then present your offering and your mission as the way you’ll fight it.

In the best scenarios, there’s a clear thread between how you help people and what gets you up in the morning. So before you start sharing your brand narrative, take a step back and see where the world of your customer intersects with your own company journey.

Cover image source: Laura Chouette